No shooting, no worries: How Joel Embiid's absence is helping solidify Ben Simmons' case as Philadelphia's franchise player
Ben Simmons topped off an impressive stretch of games for the Philadelphia 76ers that began with Joel Embiid's absence, and went off for arguably the best performance of his career. He clocked up his fourth triple-double for the season with 34 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. The big game coincided with Simmons being named Eastern Conference player of the Week, with the point guard averaging 21.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 7.3 assists on 61.3% shooting, that has resulted in a 3-1 record for the Embiid-less Sixers.
Such success has gone a long way to quieting the vocal, 'glass half empty' detractors seemingly intent on scapegoating the Australian All-Star for the Sixers' limitations, but it only fuels the fire for legitimate questions regarding the fit between Simmons and Embiid on the same roster.
Ben's big week didn't come out of nowhere. Many predicted an increase in production from the big man, including the Pick and Roll's Jiordan Tellidis - and it all circulates from the Simmons/Embiid dynamic and the compromises they have made to play in tandem. Whilst many predicted a faster pace with Embiid out of the lineup, the Sixers' pace actually slowed. As Carlan Gay of Sportingnews.com noted, Philadelphia had a pace of 95.42 - the second slowest in the league.
How Simmons' role has changed, is in the volume of plays he has been utilized as the screener in pick and roll situations. Over the past four games, Simmons has set an average of 11 ball screens a game per Synergy - an action he's rarely been used in before, having finished only 31 possessions as a pick and role screener in his career.
It's a situation where Simmons actually appears to excel in. Teams aren't in a position to sag off, he catches the ball downhill on the roll, and is in position to finish at the hoop or make a pass from the short roll. He's constantly attacking, and it's resulted in some of the most efficient basketball we've seen from him. In Tuesday's 34-point outing, Simmons went 12 of 14 from the field, and got to the line 14 times (encouragingly, knocking down 10 of these attempts).
It's been a situation for Simmons that's been underutilized throughout his career, and the results have been immediate. Combined with Simmons' on-ball ability in the open court, Simmons has found a role that maximizes his scoring output and hides his weaknesses (namely, shooting), to the best degree possible. When paired along Al Horford in the front court, the Sixers have scored an impressive 112.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Advanced Stats*. It also allowed Simmons to slide up to the 5 in certain lineups, a position where Simmons can flex his defensive versatility, whilst allowing the Sixers to run more pace and space lineups, that utilises Simmons' skillset to great effect offensively.
The silver lining of Embiid's injury has been the demonstration of an evident pathway to Simmons' next step as a basketball player. When given the keys and the priority offensively, Simmons can hit a new gear as a scorer, resembling the Giannis point forward archetype that teams like the Milwaukee Bucks have so successfully built around.
Embiid will return, and the ongoing juggling act for the Sixers in trying to balance their two star talents will undoubtedly continue. The problems stay the same, but the narrative surrounding the solution might be shifting.
While Simmons has copped the brunt of the criticism and calls for trades this season, with constant backlash about his unwillingness to shoot, Simmons is reminding people more of what he is, and less of what he isn't. On track for a potential All-Defensive season and back to back All-Star appearance, Simmons is proving to critics he can lead a team to a successful record and put up big numbers in the process.
In the meantime, it also raises questions about Joel Embiid's own limitations - how viable is it to build around a post player in this era, despite the elite talent? Does Embiid need to develop his own roll game, instead of popping out of pick and roll situations? The big man is taking a significant amount of threes (3.8 this season) for someone who shoots a career 31.6% from deep. And how reliable is it to build so specifically around a franchise player who has had a marked injury history?
There's no easy answer to Philadelphia's problems, but talent isn't the concern. What Simmons is proving, whether it be in Philadelphia or elsewhere, is that if you build around him, you have a star. Which star the Sixers want to build around, seems like an ever-increasing ultimatum for the franchise.